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Herbal Explorations

TCM Journeys: Marco Lam

By Joni Renee Zalk

Marco Chung-Shu Lam, L.Ac. is the Clinical Director at the Mandala Integrative Medicine Clinic, which was the first green-built clinic in Colorado and home to many exceptional pracitioners. He is a professor at Naropa University, a leading institution in providing students with a contemplative education. He has been teaching students internationally for over 15 years to connect with their own personal healing, the healing of the land and how to create sustainable livelihood. Marco is also the CEO of Divine Farmer Herbals and a regular formulator of new herbal formulators such as Doctor Hemp. He feels that Chinese medicine is more of a path that one begins than just a career; a way of life and a way of being.

I had the very great fortune of having Marco as my mentor as I did the apprenticeship program. While a quiet and gentle man, when I met him, he spoke passionately about his commitment to the human spirit, and our evolution both personally and as communities. Marco spoke of what he loves the most: finding seeds and turning them into flowers, allowing our highest expression as human spirits to blossom. I am grateful to Marco´s commitment and his love of healing. I am honored to bring forth some of his wisdom in this interview.

Why did you become involved in TCM?
I was having political differences with the ambassador when I worked at the US Embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, as a young intern with the Economics Consul. I was too young to be in a mid-life crisis but realized that the State Department was not my career path of choice. Even though I was relatively politically ineffectual because of my disagreements with the Ambassador, I had made friends with the Marines who were assigned to guard the embassy, and I would practice martial arts with them. When I was in college, I studied a fair bit of traditional Chinese martial arts. My teacher in college taught me quite a bit about dit-da medicine (traditional trauma medicine of kung fu practioners) with setting shoulders and bones around, basic massage techniques for dealing with the damage that comes from sparring and practicing martial arts. I learned only the most basic of liniments, plasters, and salves for a minor range of injuries. Though I was professionally unsatisfied when I worked for the State Department, I still found a lot of satisfaction in practicing martial arts with the Marines that were on the base. Eventually it came to be that because we were in a socialist country, and a lot of the embassy staff didn´t want to go to the Montevideo hospitals, people would come to me for medical advice. Even though I was vastly unqualified, I still was able to do a bit of good.

A little forlorn that my dream of travelling the world as a diplomat did not work out, I came back to Santa Barbara where I went to college and visited a wild little bohemian community that I helped start before I left for South America. I had a friend who I was worried about because she had gone through drug rehab, and was now living in another community in Northern California. I was worried about her and worried that her addiction had resurfaced, so I wanted to go visit her. Later, I had heard that she was in an amazing community and felt curious and really incredibly drawn to visit. When I went up to Northern California to visit my friend, she was just beaming and glowing. She was incredibly radiant - the last time I had seen her, she had been deep in the throes of addiction to crystal meth. The last time I had seen her before going to Uruguay, she had been recently sent to a treatment facility. I remember her ashen complexion and my feeling that her life force was depleted. The community that she lived in was called Heartwood, an intentional healing community. They had an organic farm, and grew most of the food there. They had yoga and tai chi to start every morning. They had a kitchen that cooked for the entire community and would create three organic meals a day. The rest of the people were either students or teachers of the healing arts. One teacher who might be known to people in our field was Paul Pitchford, who wrote, Healing with Whole Foods, and with whom I studied Zen shiatsu at the time. He was sort of tall gaunt fellow with a really stork-like appearance who moved slowly and had piercing blue eyes. He had this amazingly calm and inward persence. I lived in this community for many years on and off between my travels in South America to study with healers down there. Somehow I had found myself on the healer path within the context of both learning about holistic healing and living in an intentional community. Those threads have woven throughout my whole life.

I was living in Telluride many years later where I was a shiatsu instructor at a local massage college. I was teaching blind and developmentally disabled kids how to ski. I was writing for a local newspaper, skiing a hundred days a year, climbing a hundred days a year, and just living the life of a true mountain lover. My sweetheart from Heartwood, Jamie, who is now my wife, came to visit, and we conceived a child on the night of her arrival. I had some impetus after that to adjust my path because I had been living very much the traveling, vagabond-seeker lifestyle and I felt the calling to be a grounded and responsible father and husband! One of my callings was to deepen my healing arts education. I had been putting it off - putting it off for many years - and I had been wanting to study acupuncture and Chinese Herbology, and it finally felt like I could settle a little bit. It was a very wise choice for me on many levels. The study of TCM opened up a lot of healing and maturity in me, at a time in my life when I really needed both.

I went to Tai Hsuan Taoist monastery outside Honolulu and studied there. I know their program has evolved greatly since then and are now called the "World Medicine Institute." My main attraction to the school was that it held a very old Taoist lineage and that a 64th generation teacher, Chang Yi Hsiang, was still actively teaching there. She was a multi-generational living treasure of Taoist lineage. Becoming involved in TCM was just a natural progression of following the flow, following the dao, following the healing. I don´t think I could have avoided it, I believe I was just called. Sometimes when you are called, you don´t even know it.

What are you most challenged by in our practice?
The day-to-day vigor of being fully present and vulnerable in my own being for people who are going through their healing process. When people come to see us as practitioners, we have quite a responsibility. It is really an honor to serve these people, and to show up with your life force and full strength is quite a dedication, and quite a challenging path in many ways. When you are constantly advising people how to cultivate their qi, it ends up asking you the same question, "How are you stewarding your life that you´ve been given?" If you don´t answer that question well for yourself, those challenges can be really great. It asks a lot of deep questions of you, as you ask deep questions of other people. I´m often challenged by just the rigor of maintaining a busy practice, a family and developing my own personal practice. I´m still young, still evolving... it´s a question of finding that balance among all those things. It´s a challenge I embrace and I know it is a path of beauty.

What is in your cupboard/medicine cabinet?
My medicine cabinet is huge - it takes up a whole garage. One of the things I learned from one of my first teachers, Chang Yi Hsiang, was the importance of connecting to plants in your local area. Those plants have intelligence and their own qi that guide you in your process of healing - your own and that of your clients. I am a medicine maker: my cupboards are full both with medicines from all over the world, especially from Asia, and also that of plants that I grow and collect locally. This time of the year in Colorado is an incredible time to go hunt for a little amount of Osha, a ligusticum species which is a very valuable medicinal. On my personal medicine shelf this time of year, I like to take a little bit of kidney tonics as the weather turns colder and as we lead up to the winter solstice. I also take a fair amount of herbs from my qi gong practice. I´m practicing an older temple style of qi gong, called Jin Gui Qi Gong (Golden Shield Qi Gong). The Jin Gui lineage recommends that you take herbs that help you evolve your practice as you reach higher levels of development.

What´s your favorite place?
A backyard that is full of food growing, with chickens for good eggs, a beehive or two for honey and making medicine, lots of medicinal herbs growing, and a really nice hammock. I think my favorite places tend to be where people have a connection to the land. I actually feel that it is a very important quality to have as a practitioner. [Interviewers note: I looked outside at that moment to see what I would see in his backyard, and I found exactly what he had described.]

This connection to the Earth is really important in the Taoist tradition. In a bigger sense, much of our culture has lost touch with our Earth element. Often, we think of our earth element as digestion and our ability to assimilate information. We think of our Spleen qi and Stomach qi and sometimes people associate that with the quality of thought, or ´yi,´ the quality of the mind. The earth element is not just a metaphorical sense; it is an actual energetic deeper connection that many qi gong practitioners feel where they connect to the earth through their yong quan (Kidney 1 point). Most martial artists with good balance at least have a good physical sensation of connection from the ball of their foot to the earth. The deeper wisdom is when you have a sense of place, like the land where you live and a connection to the food and soil that sustains you. After a certain level of cultivation, this sense guides us to a certain way of living on the earth and the land. You can actually feel this connection become more visceral, where people want to re-connect with the land. It´s one of the signs I look for when I have a patient who is constitutionally more of the Earth type, and maybe their weakness is around digestion and assimilation, and one of their signs of reconnection of health is that sometimes they spontaneously want to keep a garden, spend more time outdoors or walk barefoot.

Tidbits of herbal wisdom:
Lot of times, especially in school, we concentrate on learning hundreds and hundreds of herbs that we add to our knowledge of pharmacy and it gets overwhelming. The doubting question of, "Do I really know these herbs?" can easily arise. In addition to studying the whole pharmacopeia, I recommend really getting to know a couple of plants really well, not only as medicine, but as plants. Grow them in your garden. Once you understand the plant growing in your garden and spend time with it, eventually your knowledge of how it interacts with people grows. Just interacting with that plant becomes medicine, being grateful and feeling gratitude for the plant as teacher. I think the rose is a particularly amazing one, because it is used in both in Chinese medicine and western herbal medicine. China spans such a huge climactic region; wherever you live, traditional Chinese herbs from the pharmacopoeia can be grown. On the flip side, the Chinese have always used herbs from all over the world in their medicine. Even hundreds or thousands of years ago, even when this country was being built, the Chinese would pay for American ginseng with silver, so it was a source of hard income for some early colonists. For thousands of years, Chinese would trade along the silk route with Arab cultures for herbs that grew in other parts of the world. So, thinking yourself as a Chinese herbalist and only selling Chinese herbs is not really being a Chinese herbalist. The Chinese have always been global herbalists.

Traditionally, even if you go back a couple of generations before Chinese herbalism was so commoditized, almost all Chinese would use herbs that were growing outside people´s back door, in their garden. Chinese medicine was part of people´s daily lives. You would have a group of professional herbalists who would have the knowledge of hundreds of herbs, but most families would have the knowledge of a couple dozen herbs that they would use regularly just for health prevention and health maintenance. It might be that they would cook some chicken with some dang gui if a woman had a hard childbirth to restore her blood. That kind of direct connection to the earth is what a lot of professional herbalists have lost: using Chinese herbalism less as a way to fix - which is almost a more western medicine way of looking at it - and seeing herbalism as part of the bigger systemic picture, the bigger picture of health and being in good relationship.

What are your thoughts on the future of Chinese medicine?
Chinese medicine, as all medicine, is at a crossroads as the conventional health care system is failing both in providing health to the greater community and providing a financially affordable medicine. On the positive side, more and more people are receiving Chinese medicine as part of their health care regimen and there are more TCM practitioners every year. On the challenging side, we need to take on a larger responsibility for the same problems that conventional health care faces. Can we provide financially affordable health care and create overall better health in our communities? A larger opportunity presents to integrate with Western medicine to provide new models of care. I predict that we will see evolution of this integration as Western medicine´s diagnostic ability becomes able to match individual Western biochemical markers with traditional Chinese diagnostics. For example in TCM, we could take a disease such as Diabetes type II and break it down in multiple patterns of Kidney vacuity, Spleen vacuity and Liver qi stagnation and furthermore in the upper, middle or lower jiao. In Western medicine, they lump all these subcategories into a single disease category and use the same approach. Eventually, we will see the evolution of both medicines to come to use these more precise diagnostics to create more individualized treatments. I also hope that western medicine will take a more systemic holistic approach, realizing that it´s not only "A causes B". To look at, not so much the "what" but the bigger question of "why this happened?" A really good Chinese medical practitioner will we be able to see systems as whole systems more and more. They will begin to accomplish creating an integral medicine that will address many areas of a patient"s life. Understanding sexual energy and relationship dynamics is one of the future developments that I think will take place in Chinese medicine. Relationship dynamics are one of the biggest impacts on people´s health. I know that is personally true for me, when things are flowing smoothly with my wife, my qi flows smoothly and I feel harmonious.

On the Chinese medicine side, we have a great task ahead of us to produce more whole, more well rounded practitioners. I see a lot of students come out of Chinese medicine school, and their Spleen qi seem weak and their Livers seem stagnant, which sort of mirrors our culture as a whole. The opportunity is to create practitioners whose qi is strong, flowing smoothly and well developed. I think that will create a cultural value difference: someone whose qi is vibrant and strong - but vibrancy doesn´t show up on a western test. You can feel it and see it. People know it and they believe it. It´s a felt sense and a true sense, even if it can´t be measured. One of the challenges is that people want to constantly measure Chinese medicine. Western medicine will evolve more and more specific tools that will be able to measure more and more aspects of Chinese medicine, but, as a whole, Chinese medicine will never be able to be broken down into parts. Over time, people will see Chinese medicine as creating these cohesive wholes. It will expand the scope of Chinese medicine over time into switching from what to why. Why is it arising now? What is the body saying? What is the deeper truth in the wisdom of the body?

Joni Renee Zalk is keeping herself busy while awaiting her license, which should arrive within a month. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches language classes, fitness classes, gives lectures on health and healing, and writes for several publications.